A different kind of “Iron Man”

Japan has a long history of various kinds of metallurgy beginning with swordmaking, but certainly not ending there. I have learned that Japan has an appreciation for cast iron cookware similar to what my mother instilled in me, although, like many things with Japan, they’ve taken it to a different level.

When I was a girl in the American Midwest, all the farm wives (including my mother) swore by their cast iron skillets. A major staple of their kitchens, the skillet could be used to prepare all three daily meals (a reflection on the eating habits of the period). And using a cast iron skillet added a bit of iron to the food cooked in it, thereby fighting anemia. If movies and TV are to be believed, it could also make a handy weapon for those who felt the need to club misbehaving husbands or fend off intruders. Its durability and usefulness also made cast iron cookware ubiquitous on wagon trains and chuck wagons across the Old West. One could say the West would not have been won without it.

20170709144258_IMG_3527Artisan Mikio Arai of Kaminoyama in Yamagata Prefecture is now winning the west with cast iron in his own way. The west I’m referring to is China–the country west of Japan–and Arai-san’s cast iron products are largely tea kettles, known in Japanese as “tetsubin“.

Arai-san grew up with metal casting. His father’s business was the production of cast tools and machine parts and he started learning that craft in his father’s factory at an early age.  So it was only natural that Arai-san would choose a business relating to cast metals.

Initially Arai-san’s business was to sell cast iron cookware. He still sells cast iron cookware, particularly if he gets special orders.  But as he developed his business he also tried his hand at casting iron products himself and eventually got quite good at it, and especially at producing tetsubin.

Tetsubin are particularly popular with tea aficionados, particularly practitioners of traditional tea ceremony. Both China and Japan have long traditions of ceremonialized preparation and consumption of tea, although the ceremonies themselves are vastly different.

 

The principal reason for the popularity of tetsubin among true tea lovers is the way in which the flavor of the water (and therefore, of course, the flavor of the tea) is affected by the iron pot. (It sweetens it.) It is important to note that tea is not made in a tetsubin. Rather, the water for the tea is boiled in a tetsubin.

But when used for a ceremonial occasion, the appearance of the tetsubin is at least as important as the flavor. And this is where Arai-san particularly comes into his own. Since Arai-san’s mother is an acclaimed sculptor who principally works in bronze, he also had a strong sense of the artistry that can be wrought from metal.  His tetsubin are of various original designs and are sometimes decorated in silver or other precious metals.

 

Thanks to the lessons from his father, Arai-san also learned how to cast using “satetsu” or placer iron–iron extracted from river sand–and produces beautiful pieces with satetsu as well.

20170708104425_IMG_3472Satetsu was the only iron available in Japan prior to the Meiji Period when Japan began to import iron ore. It is principally found in Yamagata Prefecture. But the extraction process–not unlike panning for gold–is complex and expensive, so placer deposits are rarely mined these days. The finished product is both hard and brittle, which also makes it complicated to cast and finish. According to Arai-san, fully 50% of the pots he casts using satetsu have to be discarded. (Fortunately, the rejected pots can often be melted down and recast.)

Arai-san is using raw material handed down from his father. There isn’t much of it left these days, and when it’s gone, that may be the end of satetsu casting in Japan. This rarity also accounts for the prices satetsu pieces can command.

About 10 years ago Arai-san was approached by a Taiwanese organization asking him to exhibit and sell his tetsubin in Taiwan. This initiative was so successful that a few years later he expanded to selling in Shanghai as well, via shows and special orders. Now 95% of his output is purchased by Chinese.

That’s not to say he doesn’t also have a strong following in Japan as well. According to Arai-san, he fields 30-40 approaches from major Japanese department stores every year, asking him to exhibit with them. He usually does one such exhibition a year–this year’s was at Matsuya in Tokyo in April. He also takes special orders.

 

In his workshop in Kaminoyama, he now has a team of eight, five of whom work with him full-time, preparing wax models and molds based on his designs and ultimately assisting in the casting and finishing work. For Arai-san, as important as his business may be to him, he is also dedicated to preserving and passing on the knowledge of how these items are produced, lest the craft be lost.

 

While I was permitted a tour, Arai-san asked me to limit my photos, as he doesn’t want to give away any trade secrets! There is, however, a video (only in Japanese, unfortunately) you can check out to get a bit of an idea.

For all his artistry, Arai-san still appreciates the value of simple cast iron cookware, too. The ones from the kitchen at his house, in classic Japanese style, are on the left; my American pieces are on the right.

 

Not so different, are they?

That doesn’t detract from how special and wonderful they are. But Arai-san’s tetsubin are even more special and even more wonderful.  And that makes him the ultimate iron man.

 

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